It's still incredibly early in his career to ask this, but is there anything Jonathan Majors can't do?
Since making his intensely appealing screen-lead debut a mere four years ago in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the 33-year-old Yale School of Drama graduate has already amassed credits to make more veteran actors weep with envy. Playing Delroy Lindo's son in Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods. Earning an Emmy nomination for the short-lived HBO series Lovecraft Country. Headlining the Old West revenge thriller The Harder They Fall and the Korean War bio-bic Devotion, and period-convincing in both. Joining the MCU – and the best thing about the current Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania – as Kang the Conqueror. Hosting freaking SNL. And now, somehow, stealing an Adonis Creed movie right from under director/star Michael B. Jordan … and Jordan is fantastic in Creed III. What the hell is Majors putting in his breakfast cereal? Can we all get a helping?
After the entertaining ludicrousness of 2018's Creed II, in which Jordan's boxer fought the son of the man who killed his father, I was a little concerned about the identity of Adonis' nemesis in an inevitable second sequel. Would it be Rocky Balboa's grandson? Maybe a Mohawk-ed tyro who bore an uncanny resemblance to Mr. T? Had Sylvester Stallone (who helped produce Creed III but doesn't appear in the film) again had a hand in the script, neither scenario would've been shocking. Blessedly, though, rather than escalate the contrivance, screenwriters Keegan Coogler and Zach Baylin have chosen to scale way back, offering a satisfyingly down-and-dirty tale of broken brotherhood that doesn't aim for the mythic until its climactic bout – and by then, the movie has earned the thematic visual grandeur that Jordan-as-director supplies. I could have watched that final conflict in the ring for an hour. I could have watched Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors sharing a meal together for an entire day.
Following a 2002 prelude whose meaning will be clarified later and a brief stop in 2017 to witness our hero's final match before retirement, Creed III's present-day narrative finds Adonis living a life of contented luxury with his wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson), whose gradual hearing loss has shifted her musical focus from singing to producing, and their deaf daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent, a grade-school beauty with the face and bearing of a soulful 30-year-old). Adonis seems perfectly happy in his new roles as erstwhile boxing legend, current boxing-academy owner, and promoter to new world champion Felix Chavez (José Benavidez Jr.), who's gearing up for his own fight against Adonis' former rival Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu). Yet upon leaving the gym one day, Adonis sees a hulking figure in a hoodie resting against his car, and quickly, but not quite quickly enough, recognizes him as his childhood friend Damian Anderson (Majors). It's over dinner that Adonis learns a few things from this man who used to be like a brother to him: Damian has just been released from an 18-year prison stint; the former teen Golden Gloves dynamo continued his boxing regimen during all 18 of those years; and now, he wants his long-overdue shot at being the world heavyweight champ. Could Adonis maybe help out with that?
You don't need to have seen the Creed III trailers to know where this request will ultimately lead: to the ring, of course, with the freshly un-retired Adonis duking it out against his onetime bestie. But during that dinner sequence, even while you're anticipating their climactic brawl, you're also not-so-secretly dreading it, because these guys don't look, or act, like they're ready to tear each other apart so much as break down sobbing into each other's arms. We eventually learn the reasons behind their tortured history. Yet from the start of Adonis' and Damian's uncomfortable reunion, there's so much buried pain apparent in their attempts at lighthearted conversation – so many years of sadness under the jokes and good-natured taunting – that you can't fathom rooting for either of them to emerge victorious in front of thousands of cheering/jeering fans.
This is something altogether new for a franchise that began nine films ago in 1976: a legitimately even contest. We can't help but support the boxer we've come to know since 2015's Creed – the initially angry orphan with the loving wife and daughter and adoptive mother (Phylicia Rashad), the latter of whom you strongly fear will meet the same fate that Burgess Meredith did in Rocky III. Damian, though, doesn't appear to need an ass-kicking. He clearly needs a hug, and Majors' shrewd, emotionally precise underplaying keeps you in Damian's corner even when his eyes and vocal timbre flicker with hints of a volatility struggling to be restrained.
As is par for the course, even without Stallone as a co-writer, the plotting eventually gets a bit too convoluted for its own good; you can work out the narrative logistics in your head, but that doesn't mean you necessarily buy them. (Adonis' interview on ESPN's First Take, with Damian spontaneously calling in to smack-talk his frenemy, is close to a camp howler.) And while I'm grateful that Jordan was able to keep this swift-moving drama down to just under two hours, I hesitate to say that adding another 20-or-so minutes might have been to the film's benefit. Given all they have to lose as a family, Bianca seemed to co-sign her husband's return to the ring awfully quickly, especially considering the dressing-down she gave him for encouraging Amara's interest in fighting. Plus, even though the guy is obviously in amazing shape, Adonis has been out of commission as a boxer for a while, and one three-minute training montage can't quite make up for the lost time. It's an enjoyably giggly sight, but would this former champ really be able to pull an airplane on a runway after three years of lounging by the pool?
Still, the occasional silliness is handily outweighed by the almost startling sincerity, enabling you to add every playful, direct, gorgeously real encounter between Jordan and Thompson to the list of scenes you don't want to end. Directing his debut feature, Jordan already demonstrates a winning way with actors, and he calibrates the friction between his and Majors' characters with impeccable control – it feels not only like Adonis and Damian have known one another for 20 years, but that the first-time co-stars have been honing their chemistry for a good two decades. Yet at the finale, Jordan also proves himself a confident visual stylist, delivering the most thoroughly unique boxing match this series (including all six Rockys) has yet produced – one in which Jordan's largely naturalistic approach melds, to an astonishingly successful degree, with his well-documented adoration of anime. It's not at all what you'd expect from a Creed, and certainly not from a 47-year franchise whose well of surprises should have easily dried up by now. Creed III, however, is a continual, and continually marvelous, surprise. At this rate, by all means bring on a battle against Rocky's grandkid. Jordan and company would likely find a way to make it work.
OPERATION FORTUNE: RUSE DE GUERRE
Stop me if you've heard this one. A super-secret whatzit is stolen by a super-secret group of mercenaries. The whatzit in question is barely definable, but reportedly has the power to control all the world's computer devices and start World War III. (Not for nothing, but its powers are apparently also accessible to anyone with a $4.99 flash drive.) The British government needs an additional team of super-secret mercenaries to retrieve it. None of them, especially the team's cranky leader, play by the rules. Yet another team of super-secret mercenaries, working for their own nefarious reasons and led by a former British ally who went rogue and is now off the grid, is hunting for the whatzit, too. A shady tech billionaire is involved. The action, as it must, hops the globe. The climax, as it must, leaves room for sequels, and then sequels to sequels.
Barring a couple of additional diversions, this is writer/director Guy Ritchie's Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre. Why, even though I asked you to, did none of you stop me?
Because we've all heard this one, haven't we? And the only thing that could conceivably make this rudimentary spy thriller feel fresh would be any sense that Ritchie, star Jason Statham, and their talented supporting cast were having as good as a time as they theoretically want us to have. Yet beginning with its colon and subtitle that instantly suggest the fifth entry in a sadly waning franchise, nearly everything about this “original” lark by co-screenwriters Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies feels done to death, and that's without mentioning the totally depressing sight of Statham appearing to grow mortal before our very eyes.
To be fair, the guy is 55, and after two decades as a sardonic action hunk with facial stubble that won't quit, Statham is more than allowed to slow down a tad. But Operation Fortune is the first time I noticed his film's editing doing most of the star's work for him. Although he can still land a (fake) punch, Statham is clearly hitting and running slower than he used to, and thankfully, this is hardly unnoticed by Ritchie. Statahm's most memorable scene here finds him quietly ransacking a villain's quarters to the accompanying breeze of “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head” (while it's made apparent that the man would rather watch the TV showing Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid), and it's sweet that his Orson Fortune absentmindedly forgets that the front exit of a domicile isn't the exit with the in-ground pool facing it. Every so often, Ritchie and the screenwriters remember, as we frequently do, that Jason Statham isn't in his prime anymore, and duties of this sort might benefit from someone several decades younger. A spy thriller with that idea at its forefront might really be something. Operation Fortune is not that spy thriller.
Instead, Ritchie's movie goes out of its way to present Orson Fortune as the greatest non-James-Bond we've never before heard of, which would be fine if the movie were consistently funny, or exciting, or even remotely individualized. But unless he's directing one of his heavily Cockney crime thrillers, nothing really separates one Guy Ritchie outing from another – and amazingly, this one is even blander than most. You wouldn't think it possible for Aubrey Plaza, of all people, to be swallowed by banality. Yet aside from a few obviously improvised bits of business, the gifted comedienne is stuck with crummy, corny jokes that even Plaza's adroit deadpan can't save, and despite their professionalism, equally little joy is provided by the usually reliable Cary Elwes and Eddie Marsan, to say nothing of the amusingly named British rapper Bugzy Malone.
As for the all-consuming subplot that finds Hugh Grant's nefarious, starstruck billionaire crushing on Josh Hartnett's Hollywood star so that Statham's cabal can steal Grant's cell phone (don't ask), this storyline was more effectively employed for last spring's Nicolas Cage vehicle The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. But not only that: Without a truly iconic star in the role – and, God love him, Hartnett doesn't exactly qualify – the diversion makes no sense, because in 2023, no one who isn't Tom Cruise, or maybe Vin Diesel, qualifies. I will say that Grant delivers a priceless rendition of one of Ritchie's traditional Cockney-scumbag louts, and Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre might have been a moderate hit had it been released, say, 20 years ago. Arriving now, it feels both late and stale – a forgettable trifle that gave itself its own colon-ed-sequel title perhaps knowing that legit sequels wouldn't be happening.